Draft Day Strategy: Filling the Defensive Gaps

Apr 11, 2003 at 12:00 AM

The 49ers have been relatively quiet this off-season, signing only three free agents: TE Jed Weaver (Dolphins), DT Travis Kirschke (Lions), and DT Ross Kolodziej (Giants). With the NFL Draft approaching, the 49ers organization needs to address some of its personnel issues if they want to beat teams like Tampa Bay in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. It would seem as though Dennis Erickson's squad is capable of contending in the NFC. However, with many teams filling the gaps through big free agent pick-ups it would seem that the 49ers are left in the personnel dust.

Defense is the Niners Achilles' heel. Although the team finished 14th in total defense, the ranking was inflated by a strong rush defense. On third down, typically a passing down, the 49er's defensive unit was atrocious, ranking last in the NFL. The defense allowed an astounding 46.9% conversion rate. The team must find a way to shut down the air attack. Too often teams that were out of the game in the third quarter came back with passes that shredded the defense. Arizona, Seattle, San Diego, New Orleans, and Dallas are all examples of teams that stormed back against a porous Niner defense.

The argument can be made that injuries crippled the defense. However, the mark of a strong defense is its ability to overcome injuries. Injuries decimated Green Bay's defense early in the season, but they still managed to be a solid unit. Green Bay had depth, one of the marks of a great defense.

Certain positions need to be addressed by the Niners in this year's draft in order to raise them to that higher level. The first gap that should be filled is the defensive line. The unit did not strike fear into the heart of opposing teams by any means. Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield were on the decline last season. The defensive tackles were adept at stopping the run, but could not get a pass rush going. The DL started off hot with 15 sacks in the first 7 games. After that the trail went cold. The trend continued until the end of the season.

The release of Stubblefield was a cap-motivated decision, but it has left a void among the front four for Bryant Young. BY and Stubby were close friends and an effective team until Stubblefield's departure to Washington in 1997. Now that Stubby has left once again, B.Y. must assume a larger leadership role, one that was filled last season by Stubblefield.

Stubby's release leaves back-ups Jim Flannigan or Josh Shaw as the starter. Although Shaw has shown some potential, he is not battle tested. Until he can play in an NFL contest the verdict will not be passed. Although Bryant Young still commands most of the opposition's double teams, his career low 3 sacks this year only highlights his declining ability. BY still has a couple years left, but he is definitely not the BY of years past. Although the team added depth to the defensive tackle position, they have yet to sign an impact player at the position.

The 49ers have added depth with the free agent acquisitions of Travis Kirschke, and Ross Kolodziej. But these are simply veteran backups; no one on the DL other than BY has shown impact potential. The impact player will come from the draft.

The defensive end position is paramount now that Chike Okeafor is officially a Seachicken (aka Seahawk). His departure leaves an even bigger void to fill on the defensive line. The only other viable option currently is John Engelberger, the starter from two years ago. His effectiveness is a concern though, because of Engelberger's injuries and lack of size. He has to break the ā€œ4-sack-humpā€ in order to be a worthy compliment to Carter. Other than Engelberger, there is not a DE on the roster that could make an impact.

Corner is again a pressing issue. Heralded as the nickel back that was going to save the Niner's defense, Mike Rumph ended up with a bull's eye painted on his jersey every game. His size would better suit him for the safety position, which seems like a logical move given the team's lack of depth at the position. San Francisco decided not to tender offers to safeties John Keith and Ronnie Heard making them unrestricted free agents. That leaves the team with only 3 safeties. Last season the team plugged in anyone who could play safety. Even Julian Peterson, a linebacker, played safety for a few downs. Moving Rumph to safety would bolster that position, but it would leave the team with a pressing need for a corner, a need that may be addressed in the draft.

Flannigan, Shaw, Kirschke and Kolodziej will be the defensive tackle-by committee as neither of them is an every down player. This is an obvious need and one that should be addressed by round three of the Draft. Although defensive tackle is a need that can be addressed by round three, defensive end should be addressed in round one.

Luckily, the 2003 draft class is considered one of the deepest classes for defensive linemen. The Niners have already visited with Miami's Jerome McDougle and Colorado's Tyler Brayton, a 6'6ā€ 277 pound defensive end. There are others however, such as Nebraska's Chris Kelsay, a player that is rising on many people's draft board. The Niners can definitely get a good DE with the 26th pick in the Draft. Drafting a pass-rushing defensive end to play alongside Carter would vastly improve the pass-rush. Round three should then be spent on a defensive tackle solidifying the rush up the middle.

The departure of Okeafor and Stubby is not the only cut that makes the Draft crucial for the 49ers. Wide receiver J.J. Stokes would have to work some serious magic in order to stay with the 49ers for 2003. He has underachieved since he was drafted in 1995. The early months of the 2002 season had Stokes bragging about his health and explosiveness only to have another injury cut his season short. His short absence allowed Tai Streets to emerge as a legitimate threat. Stokes's cap number of 2.25 million dollars is pricey, especially since he is now the 3rd receiver. It seems eminent that Stokes will be released after June first when the salary-cap hit will be mitigated. One NFC personnel director stated, ā€œI'd consider him for our No. 3 (wideout) spot, but I'm not going to trade for him, not when I know I can get him for free later this spring. And he'd have to be willing to take less money, too."

The Niners have made some moves to secure players such as Tai Streets, Tim Rattay, and long snapper Brian Jennings. All of the preceding players are restricted free agents, which means that if they were to sign with another team the Niners would be compensated with draft picks, a scenario most teams shopping for players stay away from. A deal for Streets does not seem to be in the works, and it would be in the interest of the team to keep him for one more year in order to keep the WR position in tact. This essentially puts the problem away for one year.

With all of these holes, what should the Niners draft strategy be? The DE position should be addressed in round one. Pressure from the ends is crucial in breaking down the pocket. Carter will improve on his 12.5 sack performance if he has someone else on the line that can take the pressure off. A player like Brayton, with his height that will invariably clog up passing lanes will be a great addition to Carter's speed rush.

Cornerback must be the second need addressed by the Niners organization in order to bolster the defense. Rumph should be moved to safety, thus adding depth to the safety position and ridding the secondary of a trouble player. Anthony Parker's release leaves the Corner position without depth. Depth was a problem in the Divisional Playoff Game against Tampa Bay. A CB should definitely be drafted in the second round in order to help with the depth of a porous pass defense.

If Tai Streets stays for one more year, the wide receiver position can be addressed during the later rounds of the draft. Round three is where the position should be drafted this year. J.J. Stokes will be released after June 1st, and that leaves the Niners in quite a position. Erickson likes to spread the field, much to the delight if Garcia and Owens. Streets will stay for one more year, as it is unlikely that he will be dealt. Cedric Wilson will be asked to pick up more of the slack, but the permanent solution will come from next year's draft, when the team can spend a higher level draft pick on the position. Waiting later might backfire, though, if Owens does not return after next season. For now, Owens, Streets, and Wilson are a great receiving core. Whether the same core is back next season is yet to be determined.

In the unlikely scenario that Streets is dealt for a second or third round pick, then the Niners should draft for a WR in the first round, moving every other position down the line. What makes this position such a pressing need is that Owens' contract is up at the end of next season, Streets wants to leave, and Stokes is essentially gone. Planning for the worst-case scenario leaves Wilson as the lone holdover.

Round four should be where defensive tackle is addressed. The recent moves at DT make it a lower priority. There are bodies to fill the position, as opposed to CB and DE. Drafting a pass rushing defensive tackle will not only increase the depth, but also increase the options and packages available on the defensive line. Establishing a rotation makes it more difficult for the offensive line to prepare, but also keeps the defensive tackles fresh and able to wear down offensive linemen.

Offensive Tackle, thought by many to be a pressing need, is a position that can be addressed on day two of the draft. Derrick Deese will not be released on June 1st with the other cap casualties. He will play in 49er red for at least two more seasons. What the Niners organization wants to do is make the depth on the line younger and develop these younger players to step in after two seasons of tutelage.  With the success of players such as 7th round pick up Eric Heitman, this seems like a viable strategy. The 49ers are known as a team that takes lineman that no one wants and molds them into serviceable and durable linemen.

Round Six should be spent on a punter, simply to see if Bill LaFleur can withstand the challenge of someone breathing down his neck. Perhaps it might even motivate him to work on his kicking skills. His average last year was not great, only 36.6 yards per punt; with a net average of 33.1 yards per punt. Bringing in competition will help the special teams unit improve.

Round Seven should be spent on a Linebacker/Special teams player. Special teams was an issue at times last year, especially in the game against Dallas where Punt Returner Woody Danzler was able to run everywhere except out of bounds. With explosive returners popping up on many NFL teams, special teams and punt coverage becomes crucial as it can decide many close games.

Because of the capped strapped position, the Niners are forced to address major issues through the draft. Upgrades at the defensive line will vastly improve the Niners chances at a title run. The 49ers organization has been able to re-build through the draft. They have been able to squeeze every ounce of talent out of 7th round draft picks and players that no one wanted. The team must continue its draft day success in order to be a viable contender for their 6th Super Bowl ring.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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